Jeb Bush says he can't be 'just the brother of George W' in 2016

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Economic Club of Detroit meeting in Detroit on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The Detroit event is the first in a series of stops that Bush's team is calling his "Right to Rise" tour. That's also the name of the political action committee he formed in December 2014 to allow him to explore a presidential run. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush has impressed many observers in public and private since jumping onto the national stage in December as a potential presidential candidate, but on Wednesday, he addressed how he plans to tackle what might be his biggest challenge: his last name.

“It’s an interesting challenge for me,” Bush acknowledged, speaking at the Detroit Economic Club. “If I have any self awareness, this might be the place where it would have to be applied.”

One of the greatest obstacles in Bush’s path is the fact that his father, George H.W. Bush, and his older brother, George W. Bush, have both been president. If he were to run, he would be vying to become the first person to be elected president after both his father and brother served in that office. The concern is that many voters will feel this smacks of a political dynasty, a nearly royal expectation of family succession instead of a well-functioning democratic system that continually produces new leaders.

This is the main reason that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, according to confidants, thinks Bush is not the GOP’s best candidate to run against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Bush  in Romney’s opinion  cannot credibly say he stands for a new brand of politics in a contest against a candidate whom Republicans want to portray as out of touch and of the past. 

Add to that the fact that Jeb’s brother left office in 2008 with the lowest approval rating  22 percent for a president leaving office since Gallup began recording the measure in the 1940s, and the case against the Bush family dynasty grows stronger still. And while former president George W. Bush’s popularity has rebounded somewhat since he left office and the national spotlight, he is still known to much of the country primarily for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which dragged America into a highly unpopular war, and he left the presidency during an economic collapse. 

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), shake hands during a visit to the U.S. Coast Guard station on July 31, 2006, in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Jeb Bush said that he knows he has to “offer ideas that are important to people, so that when they think of me, they think that I’m on their side, that I care about them, and that the issues that I’m passionate about would help them rise up.”

Bush, a former Florida governor who served two terms from 1999 to 2007, told the story of what he changed between his first run for governor in 1994, which was unsuccessful, and his second try, which he won.

“I had these deeply held views about education, for example, but people didn’t connect with me, so when the attacks started they didn’t shrug their shoulders. That’s a problem in politics: You've got to care for people before you can get their vote,” Bush said.

“So in 1998 I had the same views about education, but I went to visit 250 schools. Trust me, by the end of that journey people knew I wasn’t just the brother of George W. and the son of my beloved dad,” Bush said. “I was my own person, and I earned it by working hard to connect with people on a level that truly mattered.”

“So that experience on a national scale is going to be part of the strategy,” he added.

Bush also had praise for the presidencies of his father and brother.

“I love my dad. In fact, my dad is the greatest man alive,” Bush said. “And I love my brother. I think he’s been a great president.”

This line will no doubt be used against Bush in campaign ads, especially if he becomes the Republican nominee and runs against Clinton. At some point, Bush will be pressed on specific areas of agreement and disagreement with his brother’s policies. For now, however, he is counting on Americans to interpret his support for his brother as a statement of family loyalty and affection.

“It doesn’t bother me a bit to be proud of them. I love them,” Bush said. “But I know for a fact if I’m going to be successful … then I’m gonna have to do it on my own.”

That’s true, to a point. His family’s fundraising and political network has already been a huge lift in helping him get his nascent exploratory campaign off the ground.